True to its long tradition, the Cape Carnival is fiercely protective of its role as an outlet for the people.
For many Capetonians the annual Cape Carnival is a highlight of the year.
For others, the minstrels marching through the city in their satiny costumes with painted faces and colourful parasols are the ultimate cultural cringe.
The klopse (clubs) number thousands and traditionally march on January 2, known as Tweede Nuwe Jaar (Second New Year). For many years it was taken as a public holiday in the Cape.
But the carnival goes well beyond the parade. The celebrations also include nagtroepe (night troupes), Malay choirs and the Christmas bands. The minstrels hold competitions on Saturdays well beyond the New Year.
The logistics are daunting and the events, which many outsiders think are shambolic, are well organised. In a curatorial team effort, Ghoema & Glitter, the idea of Lalou Meltzer, the Iziko social history collections department director, offers a comprehensive look at the city’s unique carnival, never before the subject of a museum show.
The origins of the carnival date back to the slaves watching parades by colonial troops. To this day the troupes have “captains” and “soldiers”. Singing, marching and dancing accompanied their emancipation in December 1834 and the minstrels still feel a direct connection to that freedom celebration. This also adds a political dimension to the commemorations today.
American blackface minstrels on world tours arrived in the Cape in the 19th century. The first group was the so-called Ethiopians. By 1860 local imitators included the Amateur Darkie Serenaders and the Darkie Minstrels. The first African American minstrels came to Cape Town in 1890—Orpheus McAdoo and the spiritual-singing Virginia Jubilee Singers.
At the turn of the 20th century minstrelsy had reached even remote rural areas in South Africa, where mission school graduates formed minstrel troupes and adopted names such as the AmaNigel, Pirate, and Yellow Coons.
Sing, march, make music
Through the Salvation Army, minstrels sang, marched and made music with less well-off Capetonians. In 1907 the first Cape Town Coon Carnival competition included such plantation-style dances as the cake-walk. Held at the Green Point Track, it drew 7 000 spectators.
A small number of Christmas choirs participated but the main event was the seven troupes, including the Dante Brothers’ Darktown Brigade Troupe in firemen’s uniforms and another outfit in “American Indian” headdresses.
It is less well known that at the Ohlange Institute near Inanda, John L Dube, the president of the South African Native National Congress (later the ANC) and other mission-educated graduates adopted the traditions of African-American minstrelsy and vaudeville.
Reuben Caluza, a key figure in the development of modern Zulu music, formed his own isikhunzi (“coons”) troupe at Ohlange. Minstrel bone clappers (amathambo) became integrated in the repertory of Zulu traditional artists.
But blackface minstrelsy remained strongest in Cape Town. With forced removals of Africans already starting in 1901, the carnival in which all had once participated became increasingly sustained by inner-city coloured residents, although it did not start out as a coloured event. “That was another stereotype we hoped to break,” says co-curator Fiona Clayton. “There is still a black troupe based in Langa who march every year.”
As slum conditions developed in places like District Six, romanticised gangs like the 1950s’ Globe gang, started to be associated with the klopse. The connection to gangs remains a stigma in some parts of the community who reject the carnival.
“That is a stereotype,” says Clayton, “that they [are] all gangsters.” The stadium events are family-oriented. Generally, any gangs that are present compete in good sportsmanship.
The need to raise funds for victims of World War I prompted Dr Abdullah Abdurahman of the African Peoples Organisation (which promoted narrow “coloured interests”) to revive the competition in 1921.
The next major influence was Dr ID du Plessis, the commissioner of coloured affairs, who encouraged the first formal Malay choir competition.
Du Plessis pushed a “Malay” identity (which is shared by only a section of the coloured community) and it was on his insistence that members performed in fezzes. Under him Afrikaans was promoted and moppies (comic folk songs) became a standard feature. It was he who in 1942 donated the Silver Fez Trophy.
By then the carnival reflected the patriotism of the war effort, incorporating the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes into costumes.
A critical year for the carnival was 1952, when Du Plessis tried to co-opt the klopse and choirs to participate in the tercentenary Van Riebeeck Festival. The ANC and political organisations were urging a boycott of an event celebrating the colonisation of the country. In the end a new board had to be established.
Derided by many intellectuals, the carnival is still criticised as perpetuating racial stereotypes. Some people even find the minstrels offensive, portraying the coloured as a buffoon. Snobbery plays a part too.
The carnival is seen in certain circles as low class. Many foreign tourists are taken aback when they see advertised “annual coon carnival competition at Athlone stadium”. Coon is not exactly a reclaimed word but it is still widely used by participants.
Then and now
Perhaps such allegations had more substance in pre-democratic apartheid days. After all, in 1996 Nelson Mandela became the first president to open the carnival. He attended in a sequinned minstrel-style outfit in the black, green and gold colours of the ANC, a gesture as significant as his donning the Springbok jersey.
Whatever the objections, deep cultural memories remain embedded in the carnival.
Many are proud of their families’ participation for six generations. Undermining the social order through parody is inherent in the carnival. The comic-relief moffie (often noticeably influenced by Carmen Miranda’s headdress) is one of the three permanent carnival characters.
The moffie might be seen as homophobic, but it is also a healthy rite of rebellion and an aggressive assertion (some even appear in G-strings) or public acknowledgement of cross-gender identity.
The carnival has a history of bringing the community together in resistance against authority. As communities were moved out to the Cape Flats, the carnival participants were determined to return to the city for the big carnival days.
The Sea Point Swifts, for example, re-formed in Bonteheuwel and have kept their toponym for 50 years. City authorities tried repeatedly over the years to ban the carnival, but participants always resisted and even composed defiant moppies.
After the student uprisings of June 1976, a nervous state tried to ban all klopse activities but, in 1977, the police riot squad was booed from the Athlone Stadium.
In 1968 Green Point was declared a whites-only area. A decade would pass before the troupes were allowed to return to the stadium and only in January 1988 did thousands of spectators once more line the route from District Six through Darling, Adderley, Wale, Strand and Rose streets.
Reclaiming the city
It seems incredible that in the post-apartheid democracy the carnival is still only superficially understood by successive city authorities, led by both the ANC and Democratic Alliance. Almost every year there is an acrimonious fracas that sees the event hanging in the balance. Although the carnival has run for more than a century, each year the organisers must still seek permission to hold the event.
“We must reclaim the city that day [January 2],” says Melvyn Matthews, the executive director of the Kaapse Klopse Karnival Association. “It is not the fault of the people they were moved out,” he says, referring to the apartheid forced removals.
In a bizarre hangover from apartheid, this raises the question of who should pay for the hundreds of buses needed to bring the troupes to town. The largest troupe of 2500 is drawn from 17 farms in the winelands.
The Western Cape provincial authority budgets R2-million and the city a further R2,5-million for the event. Most of this goes to city costs.
To put that into perspective, Matthews says he wanted to use the new Green Point stadium. “We were told we can have it for one day and we cannot use the pitch. The city gave us a quote, R1,377-million plus VAT.”
The carnival is sustained by the community and Clayton has found that some people even take out mortgages on their homes to raise the money for the event. As co-curator Shanaaz Galant puts it: “Carnival is life. It is about the life of the people—what they put into it. They love it. They feel connected to the spirit. That’s what we found in the interviews.”
Preparations and fundraising run all year and raising finance is difficult in the current economic climate. To a large extent most of the activities attached to the carnival are autonomous and healthily independent of government funding, which would make the carnival vulnerable to political manipulation. But government funding is needed and would be seen as a sign of legitimisation.
Not a spectacle
An element of commercialisation—corporate sponsorships—has entered the event in recent years. But attempts to commoditise the celebration and package it for tourists is a threat, according to Clayton. He says this makes it “more of a spectacle” and erects fences between the carnival and the public.
The exhibition curators said they worked hard to avoid the kind of touristy snapshots of the carnival that objectify the people.
Official-speak about the carnival is often condescending. The city doesn’t seem to realise that the event is one for the people by the people.
On November 23 a new plan “to preserve, develop and grow the Cape minstrel heritage and associated events” was announced by the provincial government and the City of Cape Town, with the intention of making the carnival “a world-class feature that can eventually compare with the famous carnivals in Brazil, [and] the New Orleans Mardi Gras”. Dr Ivan Meyer, the provincial minister of cultural affairs and sport, talks of “attracting commercial and more spectator interest”.
Taking ownership away from the community, even to the extent of renaming it the Cape Town Mardi Gras as one proposal did, poses a major threat to the lifeblood of the carnival. Some of the minstrel associations are tempted by such talk but the real potential they see in the event is not as a tourist spectacle but in its positive benefits for the community.
“It is the ultimate youth development,” says Matthews. “We teach life skills, but it is just not being recognised by social services or the department of arts and culture.”
Many organisers are also increasingly aware of the role they can play in developing the musicians. Internationally acclaimed performers such as tenors Joey Gabriels (Giuseppe Gabriello) and Yusuf Williams were members of the klopse. So too was the late composer Taliep Petersen.
The carnival occupies hundreds of people and exerts a positive influence on the lives of many thousands in the Cape Flats and as far afield as the Boland. As Clayton says, it is “about the spiritual renewal, the joy of the new year”.